Air travel is back and, potentially, so is gridlock.
But not necessarily the kind that clogged the skies the infamous summer of 2000, when record delays left a record number of passengers sitting on the tarmac and in the plastic seats of the nation's airports. This year, rather, air passengers may find themselves standing - in potentially long lines that lead to security gates.
With almost 200 million Americans taking to the skies during the peak summer travel months - a number not seen since pre-Sept. 11, and an increase of 12 percent over last year - aviation experts warn that the new security apparatus run by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is neither prepared nor flexible enough to cope.
"The screeners seem on the whole to be doing a good job, but when you put that many people through that small a funnel, you're bound to cause friction," says Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University in Kansas and coauthor of the Airline Quality Rating.
The TSA is facing criticism from airlines, airport managers, and passenger advocates for not being responsive enough to the needs of travelers. In March, the Department of Transportation got four times as many complaints about security screening than about airlines, travel agents, and tour operators combined. Airport managers complain that the centralized, bureaucratic structure of the TSA makes it difficult to keep up staffing levels, let alone adjust them to the needs of the airports at peak times. The end result: Some screeners end up sitting around midday with nothing to do, while at rush hour, lines can snake around the terminal, with travelers waiting as long as an hour.
"Most of us don't think security is being compromised. What's being compromised is customer service," says David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International in Washington, which represents the nation's airports.
At a hearing of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Thursday, the TSA defended its performance and said it will be prepared for the summer rush - just as it was during the Christmas holiday, another peak travel season.
The TSA federal security directors at each airport have been working directly with airlines and airport managers to find ways to maximize the resources they have - in other words, making sure the level of screeners matches the level of passenger traffic. They're also undertaking a public-education campaign to ensure that summer travelers, many of whom aren't as experienced as frequent fliers, know what's expected at the security gate. "We're trying to communicate to the public that post 9/11, it's more important than ever to be a savvy traveler who can navigate efficiently the security checkpoint," says Ann Davis, a TSA spokesperson. "That really helps keep the line moving."
The TSA has set up the website www.tsatraveltips.us to give travelers advice - such as take off your belt before you get to the screening gate. It also advises that while you can carry on nail clippers, you can't bring knives. (Dozens are still routinely confiscated at airports every day.)
Even critics compliment the TSA for going from zero to a full-fledged federal agency in less than two years. But airport and airline officials would like the TSA to become more flexible, giving more authority to the federal security director (FSD), the senior TSA official, at each airport.
The TSA has started a pilot project in Boston that will allow the FSD to recruit and hire its own screeners. But critics also note that Congress has to some extent tied the TSA's hands. Last summer, it was authorized to hire 51,000 screeners. But after suffering sticker shock at the cost of all those new federal employees, Congress put the cap on screeners for this summer at 45,000 - a 10 percent decrease at a time passenger traffic is up 12 percent.
"The challenge is that the TSA needs to embrace a more dynamic management model deploying screeners to airports where most people are traveling," says Doug Wills of the Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's major carriers. "Do we need 10 screeners in Nome, Alaska, during the summer months, or would it make more sense to put more screeners in Seattle where more people travel during the summer?"